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Friday, 13 March 2015

Those TV debates: who, whom?


Michael Grade ought to know a thing or two about broadcasting -- after all, he has been chairman of both the BBC and ITV in his time, as well as chief executive of Channel 4.

So when he asked the other day: "Who do the broadcasters think they are?", he himself was forced to admit that he really should know the answer. It seems, however, that when it comes to the unedifying ding-dong over whether or not the prime minister will condescend to participate in one or more TV pre-election debates, m'Lord Grade has definitively signed up for the Cameroons. 

He should have done exactly the opposite. But I guess if you accept the party whip in the House of Lords, you have to -- occasionally -- sing for your supper. Even so, it's always sad when a life-long media professional crosses over to the dark side.

Lenin got it right when he suggested that in any discussion relating to political power, there's only one essential question that needs to be asked. "Who, whom?" Or, as Stalin reformulated it: "Will we knock the capitalists flat, or will they knock us flat?"

So who decides what we shall watch on our television screens, and how one of the most important election campaigns of recent times is to be reported? Do we live in a country where the government decrees what shall be shown, and by whom, or do we retain the right to insist that public service broadcasters offer, er, a public service?

How can they possibly be accused, in the words of Lord Grade, of "grossly inflated and misguided ideas of their own importance" if they dare to suggest that the PM does not actually have a veto over how they go about their business?

Indeed, I could turn the question on its head. When a public service broadcaster (in this case, the BBC) suspends a high-profile star (in this case, Jeremy Clarkson) after what is politely termed a "fracas" with a colleague, who does the PM think he is by sticking his oar into the internal disciplinary process by publicly expressing the hope that Clarkson's show will soon be back on air because otherwise his children will be heartbroken.

Where will this end? With a Downing Street campaign to bring back Bruce Forsyth because Mrs Cameron misses his execrable jokes?  I readily accept that the prime minister has many onerous responsibilities, but deciding who appears on the tellybox for the amusement of his family is not among them.

It is, of course, entirely up to him whether he wishes to take part in any televised election debates, and if he does, he's fully entitled to express a view as to what format he would prefer. Equally, it is entirely a matter for the boadcasters if they decide to say: "Er, no thanks, we'll go ahead without you."

Yes, they have a duty to be impartial. But any competent debate chairperson (no, I'm not volunteering) is perfectly able to put across a missing viewpoint if that's what is required. Not for nothing are some of the words most often spoken by broadcast interviewers: "But your critics would argue …"

Does it matter? I think it does, for all sorts of reasons. First, according to a ComRes poll for ITV News, nearly three-quarters of the electorate want the debates to go ahead, even if the prime minister refuses to take part. More than 60 per cent say that if he doesn't turn up, there should be an empty chair to symbolise his no-show. And second, I would have thought that in any self-respecting modern democracy, political leaders would regard it as an essential duty to engage in public debate and enable voters to assess for themselves the relative merits of the candidates on offer.

Mr Cameron says he's happy for there to be a television debate, so long as it's on his terms. He is, I fear, to use the technical term, lying.  You know, I know, and every dog in the street knows, that he thinks a debate, or debates, will do him no good at all. It's what all prime ministers have always thought -- all of them, that is, except Gordon Brown, who was advised five years ago that he might as well say Yes to the debates because they were unlikely to make things worse for him than they already were.

And while we're on the subject of lies, let's lay one common error to rest. Politicians and officials who tell untruths are no new invention, nor is journalistic scepticism about their devotion to the unvarnished truth a uniquely modern phenomenon. Almost as useful as Lenin's question "who, whom?" is the much-quoted, but erroneously attributed, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"

It was not, contrary to popular belief, first expressed by Jeremy Paxman, but many decades earlier, in the 1940s, when the then industrial correspondent of the Communist party newspaper the Daily Worker gave some advice to a young reporter on The Times. The reporter, Louis Heren, who rose to become the paper's deputy editor, related in his memoir "Growing Up on The Times": "One day, when I asked him for some advice before interviewing the permanent secretary [at the Ministry of Labour], he said: 'Always ask yourself why these lying bastards are lying to you.'"

Heren added, and this was in a book published in 1978: "I still ask myself that question today." So do I.

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